By M.J. Almsdale
The day had been long. We were on the third day of a week-long hike through England’s Westmoreland country. We’d walked through spotty rain showers; the sky was a cloudy gray, broken up with patches of darker gray, heavier rain. The hoods on our coats went up, and down, and up again. We were walking into the Lake District and a small town called Patterdale, a po-dunk town if you’d ever seen one. But it was a beautiful sort of po-dunk. The kind I’d like to call home, even.
The shop along the main road was small, but served as post office, grocery, ice cream depot and souvenir shop all-inclusive. I didn’t want to buy anything touristy, nothing too sheep-loving, too in awe of the silly animal that had been our constant companion these past three days. We walked across sheep pasture upon pasture, green fields too many to count, enclosures of sheep all black and white and grayed, and we sidestepped poo the size of our fists and the size of our pinkies. All from the same source. All-natural, all-organic. These sheep were healthy sheep, live sheep, noisy sheep. Hey, you smell that? we could have said. That’s the smell of life, and point to our boots all green-brown and mucky.
But I made an impulse purchase at the Patterdale shop: I pulled a sky-blue mug of porcelain off the high shelf, the outsides and one side of the inner rim bearing the picture of a cartoon sheep head. I told myself in an instant of hesitation: it’s okay to buy this, it’s okay to like sheep!
“One of the dumbest animals on the planet, really, they don’t know what to think of you,” a close British friend had said a few days earlier as we walked through a sheep pasture in the city outskirts of York. The sheep weren’t pleasant to look at, really. But perhaps it was my proximity to them, the vast number of them, or the fact that I was in England and walking in a field (as opposed to claustrophobic London), that made me warm to them.
It helped that the mug I bought went to support a cause: “The Herdy Fund.” The fund’s “Herdy” stands for the Herdwick sheep, a hearty breed that’s, ahem, used to the rain. And, ha, I didn’t even know at the time that it was Herdwicks I’d been passing on the trail.
The Herdy Fund has a large local footprint. (Global even, here I am telling you about it). One of its aims is to “make the most of the UK’s assets…wool.” Sheep have a purpose, they aren’t just scenery for giddy walkers. They provide warmth for clothing, or in the particular case of the Herdwicks—meat, human nourishment.
Sitting on the shelf right next to the Herdy mug was a collection of thicker mugs. These bore cheap transfer maps of the Lake District on one side, the colors too bright, words in block text too playful and too unreal. The mugs rang of cheap buildings and fast production time, a bit of merchandise made for the American just popping in and wanting to tell the world: look where I’ve been! See? See? And I hoped, in a horrible moment, that the people who bought those mugs weren’t hiking the hills like me. That there was a bit of separation between us. But I came again to the cusp of the question: If I buy this Herdy mug, what am I supporting?
Here in West Michigan we have our own “lake district,” and what does it offer us? Who do we support? Where are we buying and what are we buying? Maybe you don’t go for wool. But next time you buy a t-shirt, check the label; check your reason for buying it and what you support.
M.J. Almdale is a freelance writer doing a summer series for WMEAC about “green” simplicity. She will soon be moving to Santa Cruz, Bolivia for a year of volunteering with the Mennonite Central Committee in the resident Low-German Mennonite community.